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Can Vietnamese food succeed overseas?

Update: December, 08/2013 - 21:02

Pho real: Nam (second from right) talks with customers.

by Pham Hoang Nam

I have traveled a bit, and talked a lot to other Vietnamese brethren who have been around to a few places.

One thing we all agree on, with a lot of knowing shakes of our heads, is that having our native cuisine anywhere else in the world, even at establishments run completely by Vietnamese people, never fails to fall short.

I have for long wondered why it is so and never found a completely satisfying answer.

It has thus become a habit that I go into any overseas eatery serving Vietnamese cuisine with expectations firmly in check.

So, when I received an invitation from the Singaporean Tourism Board to enjoy authentic Vietnamese food in Singapore, I was interested, but not excited.

And when I learnt that the food is cooked by an overseas Vietnamese chef who left the country 34 years ago and now works as a Western chef around the world, my skepticism rose further.

I imagined that I would enjoy some food that people called Vietnamese, but was really different.

But I could not ignore the wholesome compliments that accompanying colleagues were showering on the NamNam Noodle Bar, located in one of the most crowded places in Singapore, Suntech City.

The praise surprised me and made me curious.

So it was that I ended up having a bowl of beef pho in Singapore. Not bad, I thought, with reluctant admiration. The quality of beef was better, even, but the noodle not as fresh as in Viet Nam.

But I had to admit that it was still a good bowl of pho. It was the first time that I was not disappointed with Vietnamese food overseas.

My colleagues chose banh chuoi chien (fried banana cake) for dessert. I said I was not going to eat anything fried and sweet.

"You must eat, even much better than I've had in HCM City," said Nhung, who works for Viet Nam Television Corporation (VTC).

My stomach was full, but I thought I would try a small piece to taste, ended up eating two and wanting more.

Nguyen Quoc Nam, owner of the NamNam Noodle Bar, put in an appearance after all the food had gone. He looked younger than his 41 years, and was eager to share the story of how and why he set up this restaurant.

"I want people around the world to enjoy Vietnamese street food in a different level. They can eat pho, banh mi, goi cuon in a comfortable atmosphere, and have fun," he said.

Nam and his family left Viet Nam at age of seven and moved to Denmark in 1979. He grew up learning the ins and outs of kitchen work from his parents.

His life became closely linked with cooking after he worked in a professional kitchen as a United Nations peacekeeper. Later, he studied at the Copenhagen Culinary Institute. Since 1997, he worked as a Western Chef for many big hotels in many countries.

"I have worked around the world and realised that many foreigners like Vietnamese food because it's healthy and tasty, but I haven't seen any Vietnamese restaurant really famous," Nam said.

The successful franchise story of Pho 24 made him think about cooking Vietnamese food overseas, especially, about bringing Vietnamese street food into a restaurant.

Nam was working in New York then, and he knew a famous chef who cooked Japanese noodles for a luxury restaurant in Manhattan.

"I wanted to do something that is new and that no one has done before. I took three years to think this over and loved the idea of a noodle bar where you don't serve drinks but serve food. NamNam in Danish means delicious."

Once he decided on the idea, he started to write a business plan for the place, which had to be luxurious, open, have an "Indochine atmosphere" with Vietnamese decorations. He also spent a lot of time researching locations before deciding on Singapore.

'Higher level'

"I don't want young people seeing Vietnamese food as cheap and low quality street food. I want to take it a different, higher level.

"My aim is to make Vietnamese food trendy overseas. I want young people come and get pho very quickly and comfortably, but don't need to sit in the street for it."

So traditional Vietnamese street food including pho, banh mi and goi cuon are served within five minutes in an air-conditioned, well-decorated space.

The focus point of NamNam Noodle Bar is a display kitchen, fully visible throughout the dining room. This central area features a dining counter allowing open interaction between the culinary staff and patrons.

To retain the traditional taste of the dishes he servers, Nam spent a lot of time visiting his family in central city of Phan Rang, learning how to cook authentic Vietnamese food.

He imports many ingredients like cinnamon, bo kho (dried beef) powder and banh pho kho (dried pho noodles) from Viet Nam.

He has kept the menu simple, fresh and healthy, as also "gentle on the wallet", so as to make Vietnamese street food accessible and affordable for everyone."

To complement the cuisine, a selection of four imported Vietnamese beers and originally hand-picked lotus tea are available all the time.

The noodles bar offers 11 varieties of soup from the streets of northern, central and southern Viet Nam.

One of the favourite dishes is the elaborate flower crab noodle soup, which is prepared with superior flower crab stock and served with minced pork, crab meat and a deep fried soft shell crab.

A Vietnamese woman is the main chef of the restaurant now and Nam has hired four other women who only wrap several hundred goi cuon per day and around 1,400 spring rolls per week.

"This work can only be done by Vietnamese people who know how to wrap since they are young," Nam explained.

He also has several Vietnamese students who work as waiters in the restaurant.

Its popularity has seen the NamNam Noodle Bar open two more outlets in Singapore, and Nam plans to expand to Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Nam's genuine enthusiasm affected me, and I had to admit to myself that he could actually pull it off - serve authentic Vietnamese food overseas that satisfies the most demanding palate.

It felt good to think that sometime in the near future, I could go abroad and be confident that a culinary cure for homesickness is well within reach. — VNS

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